The internet has been one of the biggest boons to human freedom in the history of mankind. It has enabled the public to spread information, ideas, and criticism more easily than people could ever have imagined just a few decades ago.
So, naturally, politicians despise it.
Two senators, Michael Bennet and Peter Welch, just re-introduced legislation dubbed the “Digital Platform Commission Act,” which would “establish a new federal body to provide reasonable oversight and regulation of digital platforms.” Aka, it’d create a federal agency specifically empowered to regulate the internet, including online speech.
What could possibly go wrong?
Bennet says that he seeks to “empower an expert body to protect the public interest through common sense rules and oversight for complex and powerful sectors of the economy.” He specifically cites cracking down on “disinformation” and protecting “teen mental health” as goals these “experts” would have. So, too, the senator specifically touts the regulation of online algorithms to ensure they aren’t “biased” as an objective of the new division.
The agency would be led by five presidential appointees subject to Senate confirmation and largely staffed by civil servants. It would have the authority to “promulgate rules, impose civil penalties, hold hearings, conduct investigations, and support research” and could also “designate ‘systemically important digital platforms’ subject to additional oversight, regulation, and merger review.”
There are too many problems with this to count.
First, such an agency’s actions would immediately face a huge First Amendment challenge. The government simply does not have the legal or moral authority to dictate what speech companies can host on the internet. And Americans of all political persuasions shouldn’t want the government to have that power.
Secondly, this agency wouldn’t be accountable to the public. These internet overlords would be federal bureaucrats, not elected representatives, so Americans wouldn’t even have any recourse if they made decisions about the fate of the internet that weren’t in step with what the public wants.
Third, this would inevitably throttle innovation and progress by tying tech platforms up in more red tape and bureaucracy. Innovation often requires doing things that are disruptive or risky, and a platform designated “systemically important” would probably not be allowed to experiment or try new things in ways the regulators are uncomfortable with.
The safetyism and inertia that’s inherent to bureaucratic control is on full display in other agencies like the Food and Drug Administration—an agency whose ultra-cautious approach to regulation has gotten countless Americans killed by slow-walking and blocking medications and treatments that would’ve saved lives. (Ironically, Bennet’s press release touting the legislation specifically cites the FDA as a model example of what they’re trying to replicate!)
What’s more, this entire project—which would surely come at a steep cost to taxpayers—is a “solution” in search of a problem.
Concerns over the impact social media is having on young people’s mental health, while legitimate, are often wildly exaggerated, as Reason’s Robby Soave has extensively chronicled. And regardless, parents and civil society are best equipped to respond to these challenges, not detached government bureaucrats and “experts.” (How well did “listening to the experts” work out for young people during the pandemic?)
So, too, the moral panic over “misinformation” online is much ado about nothing. The actual impact of Russian disinformation campaigns targeting the 2016 election for example, a subject of endless outcry, was near-zero. (Meanwhile, the narrative that Trump and Russia “colluded” turned out to be the real misinformation.)
And many ideas originally dubbed “misinformation” — like the suggestion that COVID may have leaked from a lab or the notion that COVID-19 vaccines do not stop transmission of the virus — have since proven to be likely or true. So we don’t even want supposed “misinformation” regulated or shut down, we want it explored in the free market of ideas to discover the truth.
A new federal agency regulating the internet and online speech would be worse than useless: The only winners would be conniving politicians who are afraid of an informed public.
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